Jan 26, 2015 09:07 PM EST
Currently the exploration of Mars is handled almost exclusively by rovers, with a little help from spacecrafts in orbit around the red planet. However, rovers often have a tough time getting across the unforgiving and vast surface of Mars. They can only see so far ahead, and crews back here on Earth can only offer so much assistance by looking at images from the orbiting craft.
NASA now has a clever solution that takes advantage of some of the latest technology that anyone can use at home -- drones. The proposed Mars Helicopter drone would fly ahead of rovers, giving operators a much better look at the landscape ahead. This could help them plot the proper route through the often rough and rocky terrain, while also helping researchers locate some of the most interesting places to investigate.
The small drone helicopter only exists as a tech demo at the moment, and measures at only 3.6 feet from blade to blade. Before it is ready for an actual mission to Mars though, much more testing will have to be done.
While it may seem like it would be easier to fly on Mars compared to Earth, given that Mars has three-eighths the gravity of Earth, and there are no pesky trees to smash into, it is actually much harder because the atmosphere is 100 times less dense. Helicopter blades work using the density of the atmosphere. On Mars the blades would have to spin much faster compared to Earth, or use bigger rotor blades.
NASA has been testing prototype machines in a big vacuum chamber and have determined that the blades must spin at around 2400 revolutions per minute in order to take off.
The system is designed to fly for two or three minutes each day, using the rest of the time for charging using onboard solar panels, which will not only provide energy for its flying time but also keep the drone warm in the frigid temperatures.
If it makes the cut, it could allow Mars rovers to cover more ground with NASA estimating these machines could travel three times further each day compared to the rover, and help scientists locate much more quickly the best places to study. This could allow scientists to cover far more ground than they are currently able to and will help them discover new and interesting things on the Mars landscape that might have otherwise gone unnoticed with only a rover.
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